When older people are asked in surveys how they feel about their finances, one feeling reliably bubbles up to the surface: regret. They wish they’d socked away more money for retirement when they were younger. In the U.S., where about a third of Baby Boomers had no money saved in retirement plans as of 2014, regret is an all-too-common indicator of deeper financial distress, even though, generally speaking, they shouldn’t be blaming themselves.
For instance, 59 percent of the roughly 1,600 60-to-79-year-old Americans surveyed in a new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research said that if they were given a chance to live their lives over again starting in their 40s, they’d have saved differently. While wealthier respondents were much less likely to report regretting their past financial planning, about 39 percent of the wealthiest respondents still did report regret. (One of the most common things people thought they spent too much money on was vacation; cars and clothing also ranked highly for men and women, respectively.)
The paper found that a main source of this regret was not that people lacked the self-control to save, but rather that they were caught off guard by life. “Sometimes they will ignore or entirely deny the possibility of facing major life-course disasters such as prolonged unemployment, divorce, or a health [issue] that limits the ability to work,” the paper’s authors write.